Wednesday, January 27, 2016

B/X Battle Axe

It's been over a year since my last axe post. Better get to it.

Recently (um...the last couple days), I've been working on a new "campaign setting" project for B/X (see yesterday's post). Consequently, I started fooling around with all sorts of ideas for tweaking the standard B/X system in order to get something that's not only "setting appropriate" but that helps "fix" things I dislike about B/X. After coming up with several "out-o-the-box" changes and crunching numbers I've decided to discard pretty much ALL of these "great ideas." Turns out B/X really is plenty swell.

I should really remember to read my own blog posts.

Even so, very minor tweaks still in order. Maximum HPs at first level, for example (you don't want to know my "alternate system")...just need to increase the survivability a tad. Tempted to allow characters to begin at levels higher than 1st, even (we've seen this before: 2nd level for Dark Sun characters, and Gygax used a 3rd level starting point for his house rules), but I'm pretty sure I'm going to hold true to the standard.

Then there's Ye Old Battle Axe.

Fuzzy Skinner's been writing recently about the gradual conversion of his B/X campaign to 2nd edition AD&D, something I won't fault him for (even if AD&D2 isn't my cup of tea, I can honestly see the, "ramping up" complexity to one's game over time is valid and oft-taken tactic to keep one's campaign fresh). Of course, this kind of thing does raise challenges to evolving DM...his most recent post found him trying to reconcile the simple beauty of uniform damage with the variable complexity found in an Advanced edition of the game.

[yes, I offered him my two cents and a suggestion for how to handle it. Ever helpful, that's me]

Fuzzy found himself running up against a philosophy of realism (AD&D) that was at odds with the practicality of gameplay (B/X) to which he'd become accustomed. In the past, I (like Fuzzy) have tried to synthesize these two issues by finding "realistic" justifications that allowed me to keep my practical rules. But I'm starting to get to a point where I don't feel the need to justify myself...maybe because I've been reading thing's like The Dungeon's Front Door, I've started to come to the conclusion that a game only needs to be justified so much. If you spend too much time on it, it can become detrimental to the game.

Which can lead to a bad session of gaming.

Still, it's good to have a ready answer at hand for when one's player asks a question like, ''Why do daggers inflict the same amount of damage as a two-handed sword?" Some answer is better than no answer (I mean, your players are presumably literate and intelligent and thoughtful and are asking out of genuine curiosity regarding something that doesn't jibe with their world view...I don't think they're trying to bust your balls). Best to give some impression that you've at least thought about the rule so that the session can move back into the realm of play, rather than design/theory discussion.

Having said that, AND having tried on this new "service to the player" philosophy that is starting to make the rounds among thoughtful folks, I've come to a startling decision: I've decided to go back to the OPTIONAL Variable Weapon Damage concept (see table on page B27 of Moldvay, X25 of Cook/Marsh).

'JB! Say it ain't so!' Oh, but it IS so, Gentle Reader. And while I'd consider restricting damage bonuses (from STR) based on weapon type, I'm not going to do so. First off, it would add extra complication to the ease of the system that is; secondly, it would undermine my philosophical justification for the inclusion of the heroic STR bonuses of B/X.

[what do I mean by that? Remember that an attack roll is not a single strike, but an attempt to do damage over the course of the ten second round. A successful attack roll means you were able to inflict damage, and the damage roll gives you an idea of how that damage was accomplished based on how much damage was inflicted. Extra STR, valuable in melee, can represent all sorts of additional unarmed strikes or tactical maneuvering/grappling that allows for the infliction of additional damage. It does NOT mean a dude with an 18 strength is delivering a limb-amputating blow with his dagger]

As for why certain classes aren't allowed certain weapons (the thing that led to my previously posted...later published...idea about variable weapon damage by class)...well, that's a matter of setting detail. A magic-user's limitations might be tied to oaths, or taboos, or magnetic interference, or personal pride (necessary to have belief in self for magic to work), or whatever. It's just setting "color," easily laid out in a briefing of the particular game world.

Here comes the pain.
But then, we're back to battle axes.

The battle axe is a two-handed weapon...with all the inherent B/X limitations (no shield, lose initiative)...and yet only inflicts D8 damage, compared to other two-handed weapons (the pole arm and two-handed sword) which do D10. Considering the normal sword does D8 damage and is one-handed (thus possessing zero limitations), why would anyone choose a battle axe over a sword?

The stock answer I receive is: this is reflected in the cost (battle axes are 7gp; swords are 10gp). Okay, but a pole arm is 7gp, too, has the same limitations as a battle axe, but does D10 damage.

Well, the pole arm is three times as heavy (15# compared to 5#) is the follow-up rebuttal. But then,the two-handed sword is the same weight as a pole arm, has exactly the same specifications and is more than TWICE as expensive! You've fixed the problem with the battle axe (I can carry three for every one pole-arm), but now you're left wondering who'd ever purchase a zwiehander?

Still, forget all concern is the battle axe because (as I've written many times) I LOVE me some battle axe. I love the weapon, its history, its concept; heck, I even dig the name...just rolls off the tongue. How can I make it a viable option for an adventurer, without turning it into a 7gp vorpal sword (i.e. something everyone wants to purchase).  AND (equally important) without messing too much with the B/X rules as written. Because, in all honesty, I personally think that the battle axe IS scaled correctly, both price-wise and damage-wise, with the other weapons on the B/X list.

Here's what I came up with:

Can-Opener: a character wielding a battle axe two-handed receives a +1 bonus to the attack roll.

Versatile: a fighter (not a dwarf, elf, halfling, or thief) with a STR of 16 may wield a battle axe with one-hand, thus allowing the use of a shield; however, when doing so the battle axe only does D6 damage.

Wear & Tear: non-magical weapons break on any miss if the attack roll before modification is a 1 (swords only) or 1-2 (all other weapons).

I think that should about do it.

[I actually really like the look of B/X the strongest enchanted "axe" is +2, and so the can-opener bonus brings the hit bonus up to the maximum of other melee weapons. The wear & tear is a pretty standard "weapon break" rule and helps to distinguish pole arms from two-handed swords. I could certainly live with this in a campaign that included variable weapon damage]

Later, Gators.


  1. Excellent, JB. I love little variations like this that add distinctiveness without becoming complex or dissonant.

  2. @ Bob:

    Thanks, man...that's what I'm usually shooting for.
    : )

  3. Huh. I would have just made the battle axe do 1d4+4 damage instead.

    1. Actually 1d6+2 is probably more fair. Same average as 1d10.

    2. @ Jonathan N.:

      The problem in this approach (for me) isn't the average, but the RANGE of damage. See today's post on the subject.

  4. Thanks for the shout-out, JB! :D

    You make some good points here; since I have yet to have a dwarf PC, most of the martial types so far tend to use the various sizes of stabbing weapons, or else use maces. Some of these might provide an incentive for someone to make a character who likes to use axes.

  5. @ Fuzzy:

    Do people who LIKE to use axes really need an incentive? I never did.

    This is more about getting those OTHER folks to like (and use) axes.
    : )

  6. I am not a weapon expert. This is just an armatures thoughts.

    There are reasons to carry a battle axe other then the damage roll of combat, if the things I will mention do matter in your games, JB.
    Hacking down doors are not so easy with a sword, nor a pole arm. A battle axe will help you. It will take some time, but it'll happen eventually - with the axe. And it won't break (become useless in battle) when doing so as often as a sword would.
    If needing to cut down a suspension bridge I would think it to be less swings with an axe too sent the crossing foes to their death.
    Smashing a padlock seems to be "easier" with the axe then with the sword, too.

    I can't think of any more at the moment, but utility makes the battle axe worth it.
    And for striking last with no shield AC, it is a drawback. But in many battles it's not too much of an issue when you have 3+ levels of HP to make it possible to redraw if the battle turns ugly, is it? I'm not sure.

    I might house rule it too, but do see it have value as written.

    1. @ Janich:

      I'm not really a weapons expert, either. However, my understanding is that most medieval weapons were cared for and NOT used for utility purposes...the wear and tear of battle was hard enough on blades and hilts and hafts. One would protect and care for these "tools of warfare" and use other utility tools for utility purposes. A knight would no more use an axe to chop wood than they'd use a warhammer to pound a stake or a sword to slice meat off a deer. I know that films and television may show things otherwise, but that's "dramatic license."
      : )

    2. I agree, JB. I wasn't thinking this way when I wrote my comment. I do look at this game with semi "fiction" eyes, so didn't consider it. If realism is imortant with the fighter then houserules need to be emplementet.

      The "viking" long axes was often the mens woodcutter tools, however, according to many of our own historians. So it depends in some on the "background setting".

      You do at least have more experience then I have, when weapons are concerned. I only chopped wood with a flint axe (so only a tool), and held a bronze sword (heavy) when I was around 10 years old :D

    3. I have a lot more "experience" with wood-cutting axes than axes designed for combat, and I think they'd make for pretty terrible weapons...very heavy and unbalanced, whether you've got a wood haft (old school) or fiberglass. But that's because they're designed to stand up to serious, repetitive pounding...chopping wood! My father's old axe lasted him decades (granted, it didn't get much annual use), and my own "new" axe (purchased circa 2003), will probably outlive me in a condition quite close to how it was when purchased.

      That's not to say I don't agree that woodcutting axes were used by folks in times past, whether you're talking Norsemen or sword-less peasants. But I'd think they'd be a real bitch to use in combat, even for someone with phenomenal strength (as Vikings were professed to have).

      And even so, how much better would such an individual be with a true weapon (i.e. a tool designed for battle)? While the axe and Viking raider have a long history of association, the texts I've read indicate the spear was their most commonly used weapon (as it was for most, if not all, Germanic tribes) and they placed a premium value on sword acquisition.

      For house rules, I'd probably make a wood-cutting axe a good deal cheaper (one medieval price list I found lists a 15th century axe as 5 pence...i.e. pennies) and give it a penalty of -1 or -2 to hit, while otherwise keeping the same base stats as the battle axe.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. @ Janich:

      Not sure why you removed your comments (spelling errors aside). Still food for thought.
      : )

  8. Oh, just saw this when I visited my gmail. I rarely do.
    I didn't make a good case as a reread the post, I think. I planned to make a new one, but didn't get to it. Maybe I will, after thinking about it again. I have other comments to write on old posts of yours that I haven't gotten around to do in over a year, JB :D I'm not much of a blog interactor, I'm afraid. I try to change that though :)
    I didn't mean any disrespect by not replying. I have a long RSS list as I guess most do, but the Blackrazor and Blood Of Prokopius are the only ones directly bookmarked, so you are worth reading, to me ;)
    Thanks for good contents, man.

    1. @ Janich:

      Ha! You're welcome. I certainly didn't take offense. And I'm always happy to read comments...even on old posts.

      I'm glad my writing entertains. Really.
      : )